Seeing Myself Where I Didn’t Used to Be: A Reflection on Empathy in the Museum

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened) –e. e. cummings
Recently I have been attending an Episcopal church where there are both men and women priests.  This is a new experience for one who has spent a lifetime in a church that is inclusive in many ways but definitively exclusive in terms of women priests. Call me crazy, but there is something about a sermon or a blessing delivered by a person in a skirt, sweater, and ballerina flats that just resonates with me.  That this church considers people like me worthy of being their spokespersons and leaders speaks louder than anything it could say about women’s rights and equality. It provides a level of ease and accessibility that is incredibly powerful.
The other day a friend was recounting her experience in accompanying her mother to a consultation with a team of top oncologists about a suspicious tumor. My friend blurted out, “It was so wonderful to find that all three were women – and they were marvelous…,” expressing a feeling of comfort and familiarity she wasn’t expecting before the visit.  These two examples are not meant to be an indictment of male priests or doctors. Rather they are meant to convey the sense of belonging and delight that comes from finding someone with whom you can  closely identify during significant events or  in institutions where these kinds of experiences have been absent in the past: seeing yourself where you didn’t used to be.
 The Beginning of Empathy
These kinds of experiences are, I believe, the beginnings of empathy, that human quality that enables us not only to “feel with,” as in sym-pathy or com-passion, but to “feel inside of,” to inhabit the experience of another.  For those of us in museums, this capacity for empathy is important as we look at what might seem like unreasonable or burdensome demands for diversity and inclusiveness, or at what is appropriate or not for display.  Let’s face it; most of us who work in museums in the United States are part of the mainstream majority – white, middle class, well educated – mostly part of the “in-group.”  So it is important to remember when we have felt like part of an “out-group,” to savor those experiences that can form the basis for programs, exhibitions, and policies that show that our institutions can empathize with the concerns of their audiences.  We need to build our capacity for empathy.
At those times when we have been outsiders, what has that felt like? And when we have gone from excluded to included, how did that happen, and how did we feel? Was it the inclusiveness shown by an institution, as in my experience with the Episcopal Church?  Was it the unexpected presence of people who seemed especially attuned to a problem, as with my friend and her mother?  Here are a few museum issues where not just sympathy but empathy may be essential in communicating effectively with increasingly diverse audiences.
The Growth of Culturally Specific Museums
In April 2012 the Smithsonian held a symposium on this topic.  Just Google (Re)Presenting America: The Evolution of Culturally Specific Museums, and you’ll find dozens of YouTube videos of the presentations, pdfs of the papers, Twitter feeds, etc.  Given that the Smithsonian now includes the National Museum of the American Indian and the African American Museum of History and Culture, and that a recent Smithsonian commission recommended the creation of a Latino museum, the institution is clearly committed in this direction.  Still there are many who say – Enough! Who will be next? Why can’t the National Museum of American History be the museum that includes all peoples?
First of all, this possibility is long past.  Precisely because older Smithsonian museums ignored for decades the significance of African American material culture, and viewed Native American culture as belonging in the Natural History rather than American History collections,  new institutions have had to be founded to address the neglect.  More than this, in connection with our theme of empathy, I believe it is important that the Smithsonian and its cultural advisors have created entirely new physical, symbolically empathetic spaces (not an isolated exhibition or a spare gallery) that will say without ambiguity, you are an integral part of the American story and the Smithsonian story.
National Museum of the American Indian. Smithsonian Institution
The final panel of the Smithsonian symposium, “A Work in Progress,” presented the goals and programs of several museums around the country that provide places where, as with my experience with woman priests, members of multidimensional American communities can say to themselves “ This is as it should be; I belong here.”
The Exclusion of LGBT Works and Stories from Exhibitions and Collections
As noted in previous posts on Politics and Sexuality in the Museum and Whatever Is Unspoken Becomes Unspeakable   this is an awareness that has come late for me. After attending a symposium at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in connection with the Hide/Seek exhibition, and hearing the feelings of isolation and frustration expressed by LGBT artists and visitors as their work and their concerns are consistently ignored by the mainstream museum community,  I look at all exhibitions differently. And again, if I connect to my own experiences of exclusion and inclusion, I begin to understand in some way the anger and sadness of this community with regard to a whole variety of institutions, including museums,  that consistently view them as “other.”
The Naïve Use of Offensive Symbols in Museum Display
The Union Jack in an Exhibition about Africa
In 1989, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto decided to mount a comprehensive display of its African collections in an exhibition entitled Into the Heart of Africa.   Visitors entered the exhibition through a relatively small gallery whose ceiling was covered by a huge Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom.  In the context of an exhibition about Africa, this was a powerful symbol of British conquest and imperialism.  Although the intention of the curators was to critique the ROM’s collection in terms of colonial conquest, this goal was obscured by the controversy that erupted, especially among Canadians of African and Caribbean descent, who found the flag display and other aspects of the exhibition offensive and insensitive.
The flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, is a superposition of the flags of Saint George (for England), Saint Andrew (for Scotland) and Saint Patrick (for Ireland).Source of image: website of
In doing some consultation with the ROM in the aftermath of this event, I learned that the museum had made some attempts to involve the local Afro-Caribbean community before the exhibition opened, but fairly late in the development process. It’s clear that the negative emotional impact of the flag, displayed in a museum closely identified with mainstream Canadian culture, was not something anticipated or intuited by the curator or the museum.  In hindsight (always 20/20) one can see how, absent input from someone who had lived the colonial experience, a more empathetic approach might have provided insight into the overpowering impact of this introductory gallery.  Perhaps if the curators had been able to imagine the symbolism of a huge swastika billowing above an introductory gallery to a Holocaust exhibition, they might have been able get a sense of the emotional power of the British flag and to make a more informed judgment about whether it was best placed at the front of the show or elsewhere.
Klan Memorabilia
In recent years, especially with the anniversaries of Brown v. Board of Education and various Civil Rights milestones, a number of history museums have placed images or actual robes of the Ku Klux Klan on display in exhibitions about the Civil Rights era.  The intention, of course, has always been a sympathetic one:  to highlight the racism and terrible impact of the Klan on the African American community, and indeed on American society in general.  But repeatedly I have had African American museum colleagues quietly say to me that these displays are highly offensive and disturbing to many of their friends and family, reporting that many refuse to enter museums or exhibitions that display symbols of the Klan.  In the cases I am aware of, the museum mounting the display, despite its good intentions, is still perceived by the Black community as mainly a white, mainstream institution, and it is my guess that what is being perceived is a lack of empathy – we simply do not understand first-hand the gut-wrenching impact such symbols have in the Black community.
In the U.S. Holocaust Museum, displays that the designers felt might be disturbing to visitors, especially children, are hidden behind barriers that offer a choice of whether to view or not.  The same approach is being developed at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York.   I venture to say that in both of these examples those developing the exhibitions have a strong bond not just of compassion and sympathy, but of real empathy both for victim and visitor, and this is being expressed in what is chosen to be displayed as well as how it will be revealed to visitors.  With regard to Klan, lynching, or other memorabilia that are distressing to all, but particularly to Black visitors, it behooves museums to consult with the community about how to display such materials in a way that does not hide the truth but that shows sensitivity and allows some choice in how such material is viewed and by whom.
Other Examples?
Do you have examples of empathetic exhibit design, museum architecture, or programming? Examples where a lack of empathy has caused unintended offense?

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One thought on “Seeing Myself Where I Didn’t Used to Be: A Reflection on Empathy in the Museum

  1. Pingback: True immersion, over-engineering, or lack of empathy? The exhibition at Schindler’s Factory | Nicole Deufel's Blog

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